The Singing Scientist who probes the links between diet and dementia

Did you know? There is more evidence linking obesity and diabetes with ‘brain fog’ in later life. And did you know? PhD and postdoc life does not have to be dull — the living proof is our singing, footballing, meme-loving March researcher prize winner.

Endre Szvetnik
Jun 21 · 6 min read
Quick factsheetWho: Dr Tuki AttuquayefioWhat: Neurocognition in youth with prediabetesWhere: Yale University

Sparrho’s March Researcher Prize winner, Tuki Attuquayefio is quite a character. Despite working in the US, he rather walks then drives. A few American eyebrows might be raised because he prefers to play soccer to American football. Oh, and he likes to sing too, having performed in a musical for 2000 people.

From diet to dementia

But that’s not all, Tuki is researching the intriguing connection between how much we eat and how much we might be able to think, as a result of it in later life. In other words, how diet an obesity can lead to congnitive dysfunction, which is characterised by difficulties in thinking, remembering, simple math and concentration. Tuki’s Sparrho pinboardon the topic won him the prize, so asked him to explain his research:

“We know that obesity is linked to impairments in specific types of cognitive functions” he explains. “Some of the things are related to inhibition, to reward, to future planning, and even memory. And this is especially important when you think about cognitive decline later in life. So if you are obese, you are more likely to have memory problems later in life.”

And what got him interested in this in the first place? “It’s the mechanisms playing a role in obesity leading to cognitive impairments” and this is why he got himself into a PhD program.

Example: why do we gobble up calories so quickly?

Tuki also mentions that the exact cause of cognitive problems is still unknown in humans. However, work with lab animals made it clear that obesity and associated metabolic dysfunction stemming from a bad diet can lead to impaired cognition.

“Researchers are now focusing on the possible link between glucose regulation and insulin resistance and whether this causes impairments in the brain” — he says.

An interesting device to sniff out the answer…

Tuki and his team decided to look at whether intranasal insulin can improve cognitive function in the brain and remove test subjects’ insulin resistance. Why? As he explains, it is the diet that leads to obesity but then the obesity tends to be associated with insulin resistance and low-grade chronic inflammation. Researchers think that that sets off some of the mechanisms that are leading to brain changes potentially resulting result in cognitive impairments later in life. Hence the idea about the intranasal insulin.

“We’re using it as a nose spray because it goes directly to the brain. The idea is, if we can affect insulin in the brain, then we can then improve cognitive function. It has some really big, real-world consequences because that could be considered as a treatment for preventing some of these future cognitive problems.”

The kids are alright

One interesting aspect of the research is, that currently, it involves work with children. But why?

Well, here is a somewhat long-winded answer: Research suggests that obesity is associated with cognitive decline.

Shockingly, people with obesity have a 73 per cent higher risk of developing dementia.

If you’ve been obese for 20 years, then it’s a chronic condition and you’ll have other conditions that are associated with it like insulin resistance and chronic inflammation.

And who doesn’t have such a medical history? Kids. They are still young and developing, so they are unlikely to have these kinds of chronic conditions. Therefore the team is monitoring overweight and obese children.

“We’re comparing glucose tolerant and glucose intolerant kids over two years. During this time about 20 per cent of the glucose tolerant children will also become glucose intolerant. Not only can we track those two groups, but the kids who become glucose intolerant in time as well. This allows us to see what’s happening in the body, in the brain, what those effects are and how they are reflected in cognitive function”.

The million dollar question: can it be reversed?

When I ask this, Tuki agrees, that it is indeed the million dollar question. He explains that some other research done with animals suggests that this kind of cognitive decline is reversible. It can be done with diet but that seems inconsistent. What seems to be really strong and robust is exercise, specifically a lot of resistance training. In animals it will not only improve or remove some of those diet-related effects but can also remove some age-related effects:

“So if you put aged rats on an exercise regimen you will see improvements in memory and social function compared to much younger rats. For humans, I think it’s especially important as well. Exercise seems to really stave off some of those cognitive deficits later in life.”

The rise of the singing scientist

Tuki completed his PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, then he worked at the University of Bristol for a year as a post-doctoral associate and now he’s at Yale as a post-doctoral associate. His road to his current field was not straightforward.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon, but around the age of 18, I realized that it wasn’t the brain I was interested in as much as the mind which isn’t quite the same thing. So it wasn’t the physical thing, the everyday function, how we use it. At university, I did chemistry and biology because I really didn’t like being in a lab. Then I travelled a bit, went back to Australia and found a project around diet and how it affected us. Having said this, I did my PhD in psychology and now I’m studying more neuroscience, so I’ve done a full circle!”

And how was the PhD life? Did he sail through or had to motivate himself when he was feeling lonely? Tuki says, he had a bit of both. He offers a recipe on how to overcome hardship as a PhD student. “I treated it like a full-time job, came in at 9 am, clocked out at 5 pm. I tried to keep that routine as much as possible. And then I started writing early, so in some sense, I sailed through because I kept that routine and made sure I was just chipping away at it slowly”.

He admits that the first year was lonely but when he moved into an office with five or six other people it made a big difference in terms of support and “bouncing off ideas” and helping each other.

Ok, and what else helps to get creative ideas?

Tuki appears to be doing what he is preaching. He plays a lot of football (or soccer), two-four times a week and exercises. “This is the best method for me to recharge my batteries”. And, he also walks a lot, despite as he remarks, around Yale “car is king”.

But the icing on the cake is music as Tuki enjoys singing in musicals and choirs. Last year he even performed the classic musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in England.

“Yeah. That was in a theatre with 2000 people that night. I was a part of the chorus. I wasn’t the main character but they’re about seventy-eight people. It was a big cast and a great experience!”

Tuki performed in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I mention that I had never spoke to a singing scientist before, to which Tuki confesses that he sings a lot in the office.

“I like that. I should change my Twitter handle to the Singing Scientist!”

Fine by us, Tuki! That would be sooo sciencecalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Read more about Tuki’s research here.

Tuki travelled to the Neuroimaging and Modulation in Obesity and Diabetes Research 10th Anniversary Meeting that took place in April 2019.

Inspired? Submit your application for the Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize for the chance to get £500 conference travel funding.

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Endre Szvetnik

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I’m Senior Editor at working with researchers to tell their stories to the wider public

Sparrho combines human + artificial intelligence to democratise science. Follow us to stay updated with our latest, exclusive content.